Author: Kaly Moot
In a time when bipartisanship in Washington seems harder and harder to come by, it might seem surprising to hear that Democrats from Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota shared not only a stage but also a message with Republicans from Texas and Arkansas.
But that is exactly what happened at an Annual Celebration Event hosted by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), a coalition of U.S.-based agricultural organizations and companies committed to normalizing trade relations between the United States and Cuba. The wide range of speakers at their one-year anniversary event included industry experts, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, and both Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate.
Although the speakers represented very diverse perspectives, each one managed to agree on one key point: that the United States’ embargo on Cuba –which represents more than five decades of failed policy–must be lifted. Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, stressed the fact that Cuba cannot consider completely normalizing relations with the United States while the “bloqueo,” or economic sanctions, remain in place.
Cabañas called trade the “flesh and blood” of a normal relationship between countries and pointed out the fact that only one U.S. bank is authorized to do business with Cuba. However, Cabañas did praise the progress that has been made in the last year, especially with regard to what he called the most important accomplishment: the establishment of respectful dialogue between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
Other speakers offered a variety of reasons why the United States would benefit from full relations with Cuba and an end to the embargo, including increased agricultural trade, possibilities for free trade, advancement of national security interests, and the promotion of human rights.
Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) pointed out the rarity and power of the bipartisan effort, joking that it’s not often that he and Republican colleagues agree so closely on an issue. McGovern argued that a majority of American citizens and members of Congress, including Republicans, would like to see the end of the embargo. However, according to McGovern, efforts have been halted by a small but vocal minority of hard liners who promote the continuation of Cold War policies.
Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), a self-proclaimed incrementalist, called for doing what is immediately possible in this political environment, such as a bill that would permit private banks or individuals to use their own money to invest in trade with Cuba.
Many argued that the embargo had failed at removing Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro from power, and had instead impeded the United States from promoting human rights on the island through the tools of trade, engagement, and economic development.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, highlighted the wide variety of opportunities for trade and the mutual benefits for both countries, arguing that the embargo is unnecessary in this day and age, when normal trade relations could help improve diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.
U.S. industry experts, particularly those in the U.S. agriculture sector, similarly argued that the restrictions imposed by the embargo currently prevent them from competing in the Cuban market where they say their businesses have many natural advantages, including proximity to the island and quality of goods. According to industry representatives, opening trade between the United States and Cuba could lead to mutual benefits for U.S. companies and the Cuban people, as well as the potential to share information and learn from Cuba research.
In order to advance trade between the United States and Cuba, Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) promoted the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (HR 3687), a bipartisan bill he introduced in the House to repeal restrictions on export financing and give producers access to Department of Agriculture marketing programs that help the United States compete in foreign markets. Congressman Crawford argued that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, punishing not the Cuban government but rather America’s agricultural producers (and other manufacturers) and the Cuban citizens.
While the speakers each presented different rationales for removing the embargo, as well as different strategies for doing so, all agreed that the embargo ought to be lifted.